Summer camp was one of the most cherished annual events of my childhood. My mom recently shared her memory of overhearing a conversation I had with my cousin Shannon on the eve of our departure for camp. I was only 5 but I was clearly ready for the experience. Mom said she was stunned when she heard me proclaim, "I can't wait t to get out of here! Freedom from our parents! Hooray!" She had been worried about my readiness and thought I'd be so terribly homesick that I wouldn't make it through the week. In fact, she had left her schedule flexible to accommodate what she thought would be the inevitable phone call.
She couldn't have been more mistaken. I said goodbye to my parents and never looked back. The minute I got a taste of independence there was no chance I was going back. I really liked camp and everything about it. From that summer on I begged my parents to let me return and they did.
My older cousin, Katelyn, had attended the king of all summer camps—Kamp Kanakuk (yes, they use k’s for everything). It was a 14-day Christian camp in the Missouri Ozarks with campfires, rope courses, and even a waterslide! Shannon (who is younger than me by 11 days) and I decided we were ready for the big leagues so we made the pitch to our parents.
They told us we could go but not until we turned 13. So, when the time came we gently reminded them of their promise and made sure they registered us in time. (Kamp Kanakuk was one of those in demand places that filled up several months in advance!)
We were all registered to go and anticipating an adventure-filled experience at the new camp when tragedy struck—at least in my young teen mind, that's what it felt like. In the spring of that year I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It was a disorienting time in my life. I felt distraught and desolate in this new life and regime and felt overwhelmed by all the changes I knew I was going to have to get accustomed to. I was also ashamed of the diagnosis and refused to speak about it.
Two months later my parents received medical disclosure forms from Kamp K. My pharmacist father meticulously explained my diagnosis, medications, and overall schedule of dosing. He assured me this was no big deal. A week later the camp's nurse called to inform my parents that an additional form would be required and would need my signature along with my parents. This did not seem like "no big deal" to me.
There was also a long list of requirements for campers with medical conditions, but the thing that upset me the most was that I would be required to wear a fanny pack at all times. A fanny pack (!) to carry my my diabetes supplies and snacks. I was 13 and hadn’t even spoken publicly about having my diabetes and now I was going to be forced to have a scarlet letter strapped around my waist that screamed, “I’M THE SICK, WEIRD KID! LOOK AT ME!” I shouted angrily to my parents that I would not be attending camp and I ran to my room in tears. This seemed like just one more painful reminder of what I thought my new reality was going to be like—segregation from all the other normal kids.
I called Shannon ito giver her my distressing news. I just couldn’t imagine having to wear the fanny pack at all times and knew it would make me feel completely out-of-place. Shannon has always been the calm, sensible cousin and so in typical fashion she spoke reassuringly to me and tried to calm me down. She told me that no one would even notice—they'd be so distracted by all the fun camp activities. But I told her my mind was made up and I wouldn’t be going. It was final.
Not long after that drama-filled conversation I was at the local mall shopping with Shannon and Katelyn. I remember we were at Eddie Bauer when Shannon turned around wearing a semi-chic (yes, I said chic), discrete black fanny pack. She asked Katelyn and I what we thought. I had to admit, it didn’t look all that bad! Then Katelyn chimed in. Her input was important because she was older and more sophisticated than we were. She called it cool.
Then, Shannon pulled out a second, matching fanny pack for me. She said she thought they'd be perfect accessories for Kamp Kanakuk. I asked her why she needed one—afterall, her pancreas worked just fine! She wasn't required to wear one. She told me that if her cousin was donning a fanny pack then she was going to wear one too. Shannon's loving gesture empowered me and we both walked out of the store with cool, new fanny packs that afternoon.
Ironically, when we arrived at Kamp Kanakuk that summer, the nursing staff never even required me to wear it. They allowed me to keep my supplies in their office and I stopped by whenever I needed to check my blood sugar, have a special snack, and/or take an insulin injection.
I don’t know if my cousin will ever understand the magnitude of her act of kindness to me that day at the shopping mall. Sometimes the smallest gesture, really means the world to someone who is struggling. Every single one of us can make a difference in the life of another person by being compassionate, and willing to put ourselves out there to support a friend.